Thursday, 22 April 2010

Eaarth day and the speedy Anthropocene

Today is the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day! I’ll be celebrating two ways: 1) A coastal clean-up on a small Grenadine Island in the Lesser Antilles, where I live for the moment, and 2) launching Colugos – this blog, about news from an evolutionary perspective.

To start it off, I’m inspired by a new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. No, its not a typo: This new Earth he calls “Eaarth” because our old familiar planet is gone. The power of naming is important. It focuses attention on the sort of organismal whole of the entire planetary system: it’s the same physical planet, 3rd from the Sun, but all the interactions of soil, atmosphere and oceans are rearranged into something new, and something that cannot “return to normal” or “heal itself” back to what we’ve enjoyed for 2.5 million years. Rather, it achieves its own nightmarish stability, one that may, for example, favour its own ecosystems such as sulfur-belching bacteria rather than a well-oxygenated ocean (See Dr. Peter Ward’s Under A Green Sky for a Scientist’s perspective).
This is all a big “may”, of course (But the uncertainty is no grounds for inaction).

But what are we really saying goodbye too? Taking a longer term perspective, the earth we know and, indeed, love, is actually quite young. Our troublesome civilization sprang into existence only during the last interglacial of 10,000 years. Our species has only been around for 150 – 200 thousand years, all of which has been during the last 2.6 million years of glaciations that started during the Pleistocene. Before that, you might be surprised to learn that a variety of Planetary Systems / Geological Epochs have existed. Only 15 million to 20 million years ago, back in the balmier Miocene, did grasslands and all their associated herbivores, such as the magnificent Buffalo, Wildebeests, Caribou and Antelopes, come into prominence as one of the planet’s great biomes. How to even imagine such a planet without grasslands?

Despite Bill McKibben’s popular writing, the idea of a wholly new “manmade” earth is not new, and the idea was even given a name in 2000, the Anthropocene, by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen., in a newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme No. 41. The idea is that just like our modern scientists who can unearth obvious discontinuities in rock chemistry, ice-cores, tree-rings, fossil records, and ocean levels, that indicate geological regime changes (e.g., Pliocene to Pleistocene), so too will future geologists (homo sp. or otherwise) see a sharp boundary at the beginning of the industrial revolution: goodbye >50% of all species; hello jellyfish, crows, mercury, ash, etc.

The Anthropocene is just getting started. Every generation of living humans has been passing off a radically different Earth to succeeding generations. It is the “shifting baseline” phenomena: I come to think of the highly degraded ecosystem as natural, normal, and beautiful. I wonder what my great-great-great-grandfather would have thought to look up onto our skies, only to find it empty of the sun-darkening, horizon-to-horizon, multi-day flock of billions of passenger pigeons? Writing in the geological records, human “civilization” will look as dramatic as an asteroid impact, so says Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz, interviewed recently on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.

Listen to the full interview of Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks
See Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben
See Under a Green Sky by Dr. Peter Ward

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